tv [untitled] April 12, 2012 1:00am-1:30am EDT
an interview. catty-corner from the corcoran art gallery. we sat down and talked. it turned out he had gone to yale ten years earlier than i had, been very involved in the political union, i think with the conservative party, had known bill buckley, had gone on from there to become editorial page editor for the new york "herald tribune," jack whitney's paper and had written the 1964 editorial endorsing lyndon johnson over barry goldwater, but also had become very close to richard nixon and was hired by knocks on to come in as one of three key speech writers. it was ray price, pat buchanan and bill safire.
and jim khiel was the boss, the head of the speech writing team. ray was one of the three principal speech writers, very gifted writer, a lovely lilt to his writing. jim khiel moved out or retired from government and ray moved up to the number one job and he was looking for an administrative assistant. i went in to have this interview. because we both had gone to yale, we struck up this conversation and went on for a while and we had a very, very engaged conversation. he said i'm really interested in you possibly. i have some other candidates. one of them was married to richard nixon's daughter, tricia cox -- tricia nixon cox, a candidate for that job. i thought i have a zero chance, a great chance to go to the white house. this is a lark. it was very fun. i told him i said you ought to know i voted for humphrey. i'm actually a great admirer of richard nixon's foreign policy. i'm more liberal that this
domestic policy. but i'm interested in talking to you. i know you're going to hire somebody else. i was in north carolina, was right on the verge of accepting a job there when the phone rang. they fished me out. it was the white house calling. it was ray price on the line. he said i interview everybody, i'd like you to come to work for me. i said i can't believe it. i said, i want to remind you. he said that's fine. he said why don't you come for a year, it's 1971. we won't have an election campaign. i'll try you out, you try me out. we'll see how it fits.
but i think we need diversity around here. i like the fact that you have views that are not consistent with everybody else. we have pat buchanan as far over to the right as you are to the left is a good fit. let's try it. and let me run interference on the fact that you're not a big nixon loyalist and didn't work in the campaign, et cetera, et cetera. i said okay, for a year, what the hell. sounded like great fun, very interesting. what ray did not know is i'm probably the world's worst administrator. i have as my team will tell you, you cannot give me any piece of paper without having a duplicate because you will lose it. we will lose it within about 15 minutes. my office was like the worst pig pen you ever saw. it was right next to ray's. richard nixon came by one day at lunch. i wasn't there. the door was open. he looked inside. he shook his head and said, i can't believe this guy is working for me because he was a well organized person. >> how did you escape the rath of bob haldeman? >> i never knew. i don't think haldeman had a clue i was over there for a long time. >> if he had seen your office. >> if he had seen my political pedigree, seen my office and what a geek i was, he probably
would have said forget it, we or not bringing this guy in here. ray was an extraordinarily good writer and he was a wonderful mentor for me and he really -- we spent a lot of time together. evenings i recall most vividly, at that time barack obama actually does this regularly now. but that time richard nixon on saturday liked to have a pact of the most interesting letters from the week, 20 or 25 or 30 because he could get a sense of what the public mood was and the tenor of letters is actually interesting. and there are 50 people on the staff that ray ran we had this correspondence unit. all the letters came through. we had a woman who wrote special letters. they would send up a bundle of letters, like 200 or something, 300 they thought was the most interesting. it was my responsibility to sift them down to 50 candidates.
ray and i on friday nights would go through these letters and put them in for the president the next morning. and as a result, just for one reason or another, we tended to stay late on friday nights. we'd stay there talking until 11:00, 12:00 at night. he just taught me a lot about where i was, what we were doing, and ray made the argument to me. he said, look, you know -- he introduced me to this idea that richard nixon has a bright luminous side and also this troubled side, this darker side. it's very carl julian kind of concept between a bright side and dark side. he said there are people in the white house who like to exploit that dark side. they will draw at the worst at him in part because it will advance their careers, they will draw closer to him. it's also very dangerous. the contest in here is the contest between those who try to
appeal to his bright side and what he can become versus those who appeal to the dark side. he said i'm here, and you've got to be here to help enlist on the bright side. len garment is here, there are others who believe he's capable of becoming one of the great presidents in this country. there is this other dark side that, if it takes control, we'll be in great danger as a white house and won't be good for the country. ray understood something that i did not understand in the beginning. he got the tensions and he got the tensions within nixon and within the staff. and it was very tempting by the way, if you were young, to join up on the dark side. now, his torebly people identified chuck colson who identified with the dark side. i happened to go to meetings
with chuck colson, somebody called the attack team. at 9:15 we met in 1972 for the campaign and never saw that. i went to the meetings every morning, a whole bunch of people there. pat buchanan was there. there was nothing -- we never discussed anything illegal. we discussed once calling fire engines and having them to go to a shriver picnic or something, some democratic get together. it was sort of fun and games kind of stuff. none of the dirty tricks associated with the '72 campaign came through that at all. that was all sort of hidden away. it was compartmentalized. there was a lot within the white house which was compartmentalized. you didn't see it in the beginning, what structures were there, circles within circles. it was a complex, byzantine place. he began introducing me to the -- i think not just the spiritual side of richard nixon
but his idealism and he helped me understand that nixon was a -- something cruel had happened to him somewhere along the way. he -- i don't know where this deformity of character came from or where these demons, as i call them, came from within him. but something -- one never knows. bryce harlow was another friend that used to say to me, he said publicly something terrible happened to richard nixon when he was young and we'll never know quite what it was. but nixon -- ray understood that about nixon, tried to help me understand it and tried to enlisted me in trying to build up the positive side. ray was a positive influence in the white house who was very close to nixon. he always looked out for me, and i've revered that friendship and that relationship for a long time.
i've always looked up to ray price. last time i saw him was here at the kennedy library or in boston and he came um to me for a conversation about speech writing. it was very good to see him. ray price also was -- we recruited some of the speech writing team. we had -- i think it was peggy no nan who wrote that nixon speech writing team was like the 1927 yankees. it was a really, really strong group of people. we had real heavy hitters. i was there, buchanan was there. and with ray i was there to help sort of recruit some of the people who came in. lee huebner was there, went on
to become publisher of the international tribune. we recruited john mclaughlin, went on to the mclaughlin group and we also -- there were like 14 speech writers. a fellow named arab back shum there, ken khachigian was part of that group, went on to california politics, had an enormous influence in california and beyond as a republican. we also recruited ben stein as a writer, hired ben stein. i'm not sure that ray was still in charge at that point. but ben was a -- ben eventually worked with me, and he had two requirements when he came. ben was herb stein's son, chief economist, wonderful man. ben was a -- taught drama out at santa barbara or some place in california, also was a lawyer, of course, worked at the federal trade commission.
i think he was somewhere in california when he came to us. i think it was the ftc. he said i've got two requirements if i come here as a speech writer, and that is -- the first one is -- this was an appeal to me, that i'd be given a television set and a couch. i said okay, that's easy. the second one is i want to be able to lie down at my coach every day at lunchtime and watch the soap operas and i don't want anybody to question me. i said, why in the hell should we do that? he said the soap operas, david, is where you get a true understanding of where american culture is at the moment. if you understand where culture is you can talk to people and relate to them, so it's really important that i be able to watch the soap operas. i said what the heck, let's try it. so we did. when ben left, he went to the "wall street journal" as the
soap opera reviewer. while he was there as a soap opera reviewer he was writing about the lack of conservatism in hollywood and that's when norman lear wrote him a letter and said oops -- lear was doing "all in the family" or whatever. he invited ben to work for him which he did, to introduce conservatives to hollywood. it's been a great love affair ever since between ben stein and hollywood. we had a wonderful group. safire later organized the alumni for speech writers as the judson welliver society, stretching all the way back to harry truman. we all decided in our early meetings, the one badge of distinction we had as speech writers, especially those of us who came from the nixon administration, we were the only group in the white house staff over the last 40 years who had never been indicted. that was our main claim to fame.
>> what did you do -- what innovation did you bring into the state of the union when you took charge of the speech writing group in '73? >> you know t honest answer is i can't remember bringing much innovation to the state of the union. to retrace the story, after the 1972 election i had agreed to stay -- i came in for one year and then ray said why don't you stay through the elections. i said fine. and i wasn't quite sure, but by the time i had become sort of quite loyal to the program and to him and i liked the people i was working with. i decided to stay through '72, still as ray's assistant and still a terrible administrator. but at the end of -- after the election was over, ray went to bob haldeman and said, bob, i'd
like to move into more of a counselor role. i'd like not to run this large staff, but i'd like to continue working with the president on big speeches and being an intellectual in residence which i thought was a great role for ray. at that time he recommended to bob haldeman that i become head of the speech writing staff which surprised me because i was just a kid and given my background. then haldeman called me over for a conversation and we had one. he offered me the job, which i accepted. it was some unhappiness at home, putting some unhappiness is a very mild phrase. in any event i agreed to do that. >> unhappiness because more hours of work? >> hugely long. just endless. but i really liked the people. lee huebner became my deputy. john coin, a wonderful group of people. but i remember walking back and i was thinking to myself, i don't know, it was like -- it must have been around 30 in there. i said, you know my goal in life -- this is a long time ago, i think it's really important in
life to be able to earn $1,000 for each year of your life. so if you're 30 years old, you ought to be earning $30,000. haldeman had offered me 27 in our meeting, and i took it. i just went back -- half hour after our meeting he called me and said, i've been thinking about our meeting. i like talking to you. i think you're going to be terrific, let's raise it to 30. i thought that's right, right there. hit the nail. boy, times have changed, haven't they? but i -- those were extremely tough years working nixon, '73, '74, and yet all of us learned a great deal about ourselves and about the country and about leadership. i frankly don't remember having very many innovations. we did have another writer named noel koch who was extremely gifted. a whole slew of people. i left out some.
but i do remember on the state of the union addresses tended to be extremely complicated affairs. because in those days you had each candidate, department, would send you in effect their part of the draft. they'd send you five pages. they'd want every program in the five pages. you'd have 20 of these things arriving, plus you'd have 15 ear drafts written by outside people, one thing or another. and it was stitching all that
together and playing off all the constituencies. by '73 both haldeman and ehrlichman, watergate was starting to close in. there was a lot of stuff starting to happen. there was no -- but the speech writing staff became sort of a cockpit where a lot of these differences got hammered out. one of the reasons speech writing was so much fun, especially when you're young is you're allowed to be at the table, when you've got people around the table that have paid many more dues than you have, but somebody has to put words on the paper, try to provide some music. but you are obviously -- >> well, pam bailey at one point said you had a story. but let me -- maybe it will come back. >> i think the world of pam bailey, but i don't remember the story. >> did you have more face time with the president when you became head of the speech writing shop? did you have face time with the president? >> i had face time with the president. it was -- it's very important to remember richard nixon was a --
was an insular figure, was introverted. didn't like to spend a lot of time with people. and so it wasn't as if you went and spent a lot of time with him. just in the very nature -- i spent a lot of time in group meetings with him. from the beginning back when ray first hired me, there was always -- the speech writers always had a chair in the cabinet room where there was always a space for a speech writer to be there to take notes and to bring them back to the speech writing team and make sure everybody knew where the direction of the conversation was. and ray went over pretty frequently, went over and asked
me to be at the cabinet meetings. and so from 1971 on, i was -- '73, '74, i spent a lot of time in those kind of settings. but that's not obviously what we call face time and one-on-one time. so my times with him were usually when haldeman or somebody called and said, we would like to see you. you'd go over and you'd talk about a speech or something he was working on. and -- or some instructions he wanted to give you because he didn't like something. he was always -- he always wanted -- he was never really fully happy with staff. he always knew ways to do it better. but he sort of took me in hand to help me learn a bit more about writing. at that time the networks were extraordinarily powerful. sound bites were extraordinarily powerful. he called me over and said, look, david, before you send me a speech before i'm going to be out there, whether it's rose garden rubbish or some other spiel, i want you to send me the draft and when you send it to me
at night, underline three sentences. i want you to be tested about does one of those sentences, the line from the speech that's actually quoted, is the lead on the speech. i want to see if you can write and learn how to write sound bites. so we used to sort of, as an exercise, it was a very good exercise because you begin to realize -- i didn't -- i had some background in journalism but i wasn't an accomplished journalist. you began to understand how do journalists think, how do you communicate through the press to the public. how do you get your line out instead of having them control, how do you control what sentence gets out there. that sound bite becomes very important for that purpose. especially on television. so we would spend a lot of time crafting and then polishing that line to make sure it got done. and then he would come back and say, okay, where was it? what happened? let's go figure that out. we had to write -- when he had to do something in the press
room, it had to be a certain amount of words, usually 100, 150 words. he wanted it to be very crisp. you had to learn to write as if you were a television producer for that particular thing, or in his speeches he wanted 750 words, we had to count the words. and the draft would go in with that. he was very meticulous about and he would work hard and try to teach me. i i can't say i spent a whole lot of time with him, but i spent enough time with him to know what was going to work and what wasn't going to work. what i found and what was quite interesting was, when you first got to work for richard nixon,
especially -- i was just a kid. you were very much on the outer circle. i was the most junior of lieutenants when i first got there, just an ensign in the navy. you had to learn your way up, trust and confidence, those two things were very important to him. and gradually -- so when you first were out in the outer circle you saw the public nixon. the public nixon was very prim and proper, but as gradually you got closer in, you began to see this was something of a show. i had times when i would be with him and he'd come out of the oval office and go into a cabinet meeting and come out and be looking just hugely angry or terribly slumped over, despondent about something. he would be in a really bad mood, really bad place. just before he opened that door in the cabinet room, he'd straighten himself up, put a big smile on his face, on show. i would see him in the cabinet room. i thought, he's always that way. but gradually as you got to know
him better, you began to see that side of him. then when i got closer in, i got to swearing. i remember to this day a time when we were working on a speech that was last minute. it was radio. zeigler was there and i was there. i forgot whether it was rosemary woods or who it was, we were working on a speech draft. i was running back and forth, everything getting typed up. we were running pages back and forth. and he was swearing -- i had been in the navy, i had heard a lot of swearing. this was sort of well one level beyond what i was used to. i said to zeigler, i don't get this, this is not the nixon i've ever seen. he said i'll tell you why. i'll tell you why he's talking like this. he said, it shows he trusts you. he's willing to show who he is in front of you. he didn't trust you before. and he's being more himself now. and so it was another layer of inside -- closer to the inner sanctum.
i never got to the point of being so close in, like hague or kissinger or, say, haldeman did. they saw i think the closest level in. so i never saw the drinking that you find, that comes through in some of the accounts from people who were there toward the end. i thank you he couldn't hold his liquor. to this day i don't accept as real the portrayal of him that came through the -- >> the final days? >> the final days. who is the guy that did the jfk movies? >> oliver stone. >> oliver stone. i'm sorry. i should remember that. i actually know oliver stone. i have come to have a higher regard for oliver stone over the years. i didn't recognize the nixon of hole very stone. the nixon of nixon frost i
recognize. but the nixon of oliver stone i didn't recognized. i thought this was a harsher portrayal than i thought was appropriate. i went to the preview in washington and i remember walking out and bob woodward and i were there walking out together. we compared notes. i think he shared my view, that it had too harsh a view of nixon. he came through as a real drunk there. that's not what i saw. i did know when you got closer in you saw the darker side more clearly. and you saw -- i thought what you saw when you got closer in also was a lot of vulnerability, personality vulnerability and loneliness. i have -- one night i was taking a speech to him over in the residence and you normally went over to the usher's office and asked the usher if you'd take it up to him, if you were late on trying to get a speech in for the next day.
the usher said he's waiting for you but he's over at the old executive office building. he's bowling over there. he wants you to take it over to him. i said, fine, i'll be glad to. but i didn't know there was a bowling alley. and he said, yeah, there's a bowling alley in the basement, go here and go there. you'll see secret service if you look around long enough. i said fine. so i went trotting over to the old executive office building and went through all these tunnels an dark places, one thing or another and finally found this bowling alley and opened it up. it was a long, thin room. there was richard nixon in gucci shoes i think, suit pants, a white shirt, tie, cuff links bowling alone. and he looked like the loneliest fellow than i had seen in a long time. >> i just really felt badly for him. gee, you think some one would have a friend there, a child, somebody who was another human being you could share that with.
but i think ultimately he was a very lonely man. and there was a part about that that you felt like you just wanted to say, it's okay. it's going to be okay. but you couldn't. >> is it that sense of vulnerability that kept you there? why did you stay so long? >> the question of whether to stay or go was an increasingly difficult question for several of us on the staff but i think for others as well, especially the younger generation. i had come in as a third or fourth level down person, you know.
i was way down in the pecking order and very young. and through the evolution of time i had moved into -- i was now still a junior lieutenant but i had responsibility. i had 50 people i was responsible for. and i had a little bit of a public profile. not much but i had a little bit of a profile. and by that time ray price was still writing the principal speeches. he wrote all the watergate speeches with the president. but i was increasingly called in to help deal with some of the other charges and they were, as you know, numerous charges against him. i was called in as i recall first on the question of his taxes. whether he had abused the tax system in a variety of ways. i remember i was in north carolina and the call came in on december 29th or 30th. i was there for christmas and
new year's. and saying you got to come back to the white house. i spent that new year's eve at the white house. i remember this very well. we had a tax team in, a big philadelphia law firm and some other people. we were all working to go through his taxes and i was in charge of the white paper that was going to come out to write this white paper. and, you know, we spent a lot of time on that issue and a lot of the charges turned out to be wild. they were not accurate. now, some were closer to the mark and there were some things he had done that had been close to the line but there was nothing egregiously illegal. and so you came out of that feeling like, well, if he's not guilty of this, why is he guilty of the central charge of watergate? this was more peripheral charges. then we went through another